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St. John’s makes a statement in 70-67 win over Arizona

The Johnnies escape with a big win over #16 Arizona

AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron

When Chris Mullin stepped down as the head coach of the St. John’s basketball team in April, what followed was a string of transfers, early departures for the pros and a bumbling coaching search that led to the program being the butt of an avalanche of jokes before eventually landing on Mike Anderson.

Well apparently ,Mike Anderson did not come to Jamaica, Queens to joke around. The St. John’s Red Storm crossed the country to play a neutral site game against the heavily favored #16 Arizona Wildcats and they’re coming home with a signature 70-67 win to put on the top of their resume. Yes. I’m actually talking about an NCAA tournament resume for the Johnnies.

With star guard and senior leader, Mustapha Heron sitting out a second straight game with an ankle sprain, the Red Storm looked like the better team for, oh let’s say the first 33 minutes of the game. They jumped out to a 23-9 lead and rode their frantic, active defense and LJ Figueroa’s hot hand (21 points on the night) to a 40-26 halftime lead. Figueroa sent them into the locker room on a high note with a scoop shot that was so sweet you could put it on toast. I don’t think that’s a real turn of phrase but I’m struggling to find a way to describe it’s sweetness so here it is...

And for that record that’s LJ getting props from Golden State Warriors D’Angelo Russell & Eric Paschall at the end of the clip (the game was played in Golden State’s arena.)

The second half looked like more of the same with the lead fluctuating between 9 and 16 points until around the 7 minute mark when the Johnnies became content to sit on their lead and hold the ball late into the shot clock. It seemed to break their flow and led to disjointed possessions, turnovers and opened the door for a late surge by Arizona.

The fouls piled up and both teams reached the bonus and then double bonus down the stretch. Unfortunately, St. John’s (who up until crunch time had been shooting lights out from the line. 19-20 at one point) began missing their freebies while the Wildcats were converting and chipping away at the once substantial lead.

Two stops in the final seconds of the game sealed the deal however and the Johnnies barely hung on for the 70-67 statement win.

Zeke Nnaji played a terrific game for the Arizona scoring 24 points on only 10 shots and grabbing 11 rebounds. Soon-to-be-NBA lottery pick Nico Mannion seemed a bit flustered by the St. John’s pressure in the first half but rallied to help bring the Cats back down the stretch. Up next for them is a long holiday break before a showdown with inter-state rival Arizona State on January 4th

The Johnnies end the non-conference portion of the schedule with an impressive 11-2 record which includes a win over the #25 West Virginia Mountaineers to go along with the Arizona victory. That qualifies as overachieving based on the predictions of virtually every media member as well as the vast majority of Red Storm fans themselves. The team now has a 10 day break to nurse Heron’s ankle back to full health before opening Big East play at home on New Year’s Eve. A huge game awaits them against the #17 Butler Bulldogs, who have looked fantastic.

It should be mentioned that today was a banner day for the Big East as it’s members went a perfect 7-0 including wins over Power 5 opponents #1 Kansas, #16 Arizona, Purdue, Texas, Arizona State and Northwestern. This of course comes a day after Seton Hall’s gutsy upset of #10 Maryland. Oh yeah, conference play is going to be wiiiiiiiiiild, baby.